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Underwater Photography: by Dale Sheckler
I have only one hobby (I made diving my job a long time ago). That hobby is sports—youth sports to be specific. I coach and watch (my boys mostly) and enjoy taking action photos and sharing them with the players.
Like underwater photography, I have learned to hone my skills of sports photography over the years. And I have noticed, in spite of what appears to be obvious differences, I have learned a lot from sports photography to apply to underwater imaging and visa versa. Should you take up sports photography to better your underwater picture taking? Maybe. . . but, hopefully, I can share with you some of what I have learned.
ANTICIPATE THE ACTION
Athletes move fast and so do fish. But, if you understand the game (both in fish and sports), you can anticipate where the players, or fish, will be and when, and what they will be doing. As you get better you can even pre-focus and pre-frame the shot and just wait for the subject to move into place.
Key to anticipating the action is to know the game. If you understand the strategy of the game, techniques, fundamentals, etc., you will be in a much better position to capture the action. Same with animals underwater. Know when they will be where and why. Know territorially, mating and nesting patterns. Understanding your underwater subject will lead to great underwater shots.
One of the things I enjoy about youth sports is the colorful uniforms. They make for great photo compositions, especially when you can get dramatic contrasts of red, green grass, blue sky, gold jerseys and more.
You could not ask for a more colorful cast of characters than underwater, but you need to take best advantage of the variety of hues. For maximum effect, look for contrasts. Put that orange garibaldi against an amber green kelp forest. A blue water background is perfect for the a brightly hued nudibranch.
GET DOWN & DIRTY IN THE TRENCHES
Not you literally, but your photos. Often the best action on the football field is on the front line. Where is the frontline underwater? It is usually where the animals feed. Look on the leading or trailing edges of a reef in a current. Feeding activity peaks at dawn and dusk. Want to find a particular species? Look for their food, and odds are they will not be far away.
GET CLOSE TO THE ACTION
So many sports and underwater photos are mediocre simply because the main subject is not much more that a small spot on the frame. Get close, real close. Fill the frame with your subject. An in-tight shot brings out the real “personality” of your subject.
In sports, if you are in tight you can get the big eyes, grimaces, smiles, tongues out, and mouths open. This brings home the real struggle of the game. Expressions are key to a great sports photo. Undersea animals do emote “emotions” that can be captured on film. Painted greenlings change colors during mating as do other animals. Garibaldi will take on a confrontational posture if they feel their territory is invaded. Octopus not only show their state of excitement with their skin tones and textures but also with the dilation of their eyes. Raised fins, open mouths—they all mean something—are all worthwhile to capture photographically, because they make your images much more interesting.
AVOID THE CLICHE´
In sports it is so easy to fall into the habit of the cliche’ photo—a player at bat, a free-throw. These shots are too easy and often boring. Go for the shot that demonstrates action. Catch the bat hitting the ball, the lay-up, the goalie making the block.
A flat shot of a fish is nice, but add something more. Frame the fish in kelp, add a diver to the photo, get the moray shot with shrimp all over it. Better yet, get the animal in action—in the act of eating, mating, nesting, or guarding its territory. Get the animal in action playing its “game.”
USE THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT
Different sports often require different photographic gear. What you use for indoor sports, for example, is often very different than what you use for outdoor sports. Photos for tennis require different equipment than that of soccer.
Underwater photos are the same. It is impossible to have one camera setup that will work for all situations. The best you can have is a zoom lens in a housing or supplemental lenses that you can put on and remove underwater. Zoom lenses, at best, give you mediocre wide-angle and macro capabilities. Supplemental lenses are better but some distort the image and can be lost when removed. Interchangeable lenses are what sports photographers use and this is your best bet. It’s best, however, to enter the water with a specific set-up for the task—macro for macro, wide-angle for wide-angle—then realize the limitations of each and accept them.
Also, choose the right equipment on how you want to photograph your athletes or animals. A long telephoto will give different results than a wide-angle—a different mood, look, and character.
GET LOW AND SHOOT UP
This almost always makes your subject bigger, more colorful and action more exciting. A low camera angle on a 6-year old basketball player shooting can make him look like Shaq—sort of. Lower your camera angle underwater and that giant black sea bass will appear enormous, give it more texture and character.
Most likely, some time on the court or field with your camera will improve your underwater photos. You will at least enjoy some good sporting contests.